Steering interviews back on course

Steering interviews back on course

You glance at the time, hoping the candidate won't notice. Eight minutes ago you asked them to tell you about a time they resolved a technical disagreement with a coworker. The candidate launched into a story about an opinionated junior engineer they once worked with and you thought to yourself, "Ah, perfect! The team that's hiring has mostly junior engineers." But at some point the story became a digression into their own origin as a junior engineer, which – though interesting – isn't going to factor into your hiring recommendation.

As an interviewer, you have a finite amount of time to speak with a candidate. And in that brief window, you need to get the right type and quantity of information to assess the candidate for their fit with the role. When the candidate isn't giving you the information you want, you know that precious minutes are being wasted – but does the candidate?

🤝 You're on the same team

Remember, you and the candidate want the same outcome: for you to come away from the interview feeling great about the candidate. The candidate wants to give you the information you're looking for. And unless they can read minds, the only way they can gauge their success is from what you communicate to them.

A practiced candidate might actively solicit feedback by asking you to clarify your question – "Are you more interested in the technical aspects or the interpersonal aspects?" Or by asking you directly if their answer hit the mark – "Does that answer your question? Is that what you were looking for?" But interviews are stressful situations, and even experienced candidates might miss the point of your question.

If you interrupt a candidate to help them course-correct, you're not being rude. You're being considerate!

🙋 Pause the conversation

So you've decided it's time to steer the conversation. Now comes the hard part – speaking up! You could wait for a lull in the conversation before jumping in, but a candidate in the flow of their story might not leave you many openings. Here are a few phrases that I like to use because they feel like a gentle, respectful way of cutting off the other person:

  • "Hey, <name of candidate>, could we pause for a moment?"
  • "Sorry to interject, <name of candidate>. Can I jump in for a second?"
  • "Oh, <name of candidate>, you know what?"

Being interrupted can be scary. Is something wrong? Is the interview terminated? Once the candidate has paused, I try to put them at ease by making my intentions clear. So I'll say something like: "I'd like to reframe my question, just so we can get the most out of our time together and I can learn as much about your experience as possible." The point is to normalize your interruption; to convey that everything is going well, and it's about to get even better.

🎯 Illuminate the target

Here's where you redirect the candidate so they can improve the quality of their answer. What are you looking for? Which particular part of their experience might provide you with the signal you want? I've found that the more explicit I am with my questions, the greater signal I get from the candidate's answers.

  • "What I'm interested in is not so much the implementation details, but more the high-level architecture and how you made decisions regarding it. Could you tell me more about that side of things?"
  • "Would you mind telling me more about the roles and permissions project you mentioned? I'm really curious to learn about how you identified the project's requirements and communicated them to others. How do you approach that kind of stuff?"
  • “You said something interesting earlier about stakeholders and competing requests. How did you resolve those? That sounds challenging."

💡 It's just a conversation

An interview is such a structured and goal-oriented activity that I think it's easy to forget that we're just people, talking and getting to know each other. But it's OK to do the things we normally do in conversations! We're allowed to jump in and say, "Oh cool!" or "Wait, what do you mean?" It's all right to repeat back your understanding of what the other person has said, to make sure you understood it correctly. You can show curiosity, or laugh, or take a moment to ponder what the other person has said.

Do you. Just try not to be too obvious when you check the time!

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